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The Big Question: conflict at work

Every edition of Baptists Together we collect responses to a general question: drawing on the conflict and peacemaker themes in this edition we asked how Christians can respond when there are issues of conflict in the workplace


'Press the pause button!'

The Big QuestionWhen people are in conflict the quality of their communication goes down. Shouting happens, or an unpleasant tone enters someone's voice; an issue which was seemingly about work, becomes personal; some people stop talking altogether, and dirty looks fly about the room. Trust, friendship and openness disappear and suspicion, misunderstanding and dislike take their place. We've all been there – either as on-lookers or participants, and it is hard. So what can we do about it?

One of the most helpful things we can do is to watch our communication and help others to communicate better. One simple way to improve the quality of communication is to 'Press the pause button!' This is more than remembering the oft-given parental advice of 'Think before you speak.' 
This is slowing the conversation down, trying to take some of the heat out of it so that real communication can happen. It means stopping before you respond, and checking that you really understand.

A really helpful way of doing this is to summarise what the other person has said, not interpret it, not argue against, but summarise, checking that you have done so correctly. This may sound contrived but believe me, this simple tool can be transforming. The person feels heard and understood, and their manner often changes too, making them more prepared to hear what others want to say.

Then when you speak, try to speak for yourself, and in a way that the other can hear, so avoid blaming and accusation, but speak about the impact of the situation or behaviour on you.

We cannot always agree, but we do have to disagree well. As Christians we need to remember that each person is a beloved child of God (yes, even that awkward colleague or bullying boss) and if God cared enough to come and live and die for them, the least we can do is try to understand them!

The Revd Jo Williams is joint minister of Sion Baptist Church in Burnley alongside husband Andy. She is a community mediator in North West England, and has extensive experience of training others in mediation


‘Addressing conflict via emails does not usually lead to constructive outcomes’

Addressing situations of conflict is never easy. However there are some principles that might be worth considering when having to address a conflict situation. Prayer is the most important. This may appear pretty obvious, but it can be easily ignored. Seeking the mind of Christ is imperative. This will help us to reach Godly outcomes.

Alongside this is the recognition that the person we are in conversation with is, like us, created in the image of God. As a bearer of the image of God they too must be treated with respect and dignity. Humility too must surely be a vital principle. A realisation that we too have fallen short of the glory of God - we too are sinners in need of the constant reassurance of Christ.

Preparation is important and should not be underestimated. When I say preparation I refer to mental, as well as spiritual. Listening is another principle. Often we can be defensive in these situations, preventing others from expressing their valid perspectives, imposing our ' rightful' opinion throughout the conversation.

However, what listening does is help us to appreciate the complexity of the situation, the differing perspectives and sometimes our part in the unfortunate situation. Addressing conflict via emails does not usually lead to constructive outcomes.  As painful as they might be constructive face to faces, if conducted well, can lead to healthier relationships.

Finally, we often think avoidance of conflict is the better solution - though I agree there are times when we need to say and do nothing - but there are also times when the  absence of ' confrontation' demonstrates a lack of leadership and respect for those directly and indirectly caught up in the concerns.

The Revd Wale Hudson-Roberts is the Racial Justice Networker for the Baptist Union of Great Britain

‘The decisive moment was when the door was opened that little bit - by the humility of one of the parties’

“Blessed are the peacemakers” said Jesus. But how do we become one in the workplace? One way we can bring peace to the world of work is by mediating between those whose relationship has broken down. In recent years I found that mediating at work be enormously rewarding.

Two of my colleagues had badly fallen out over the approach to be taken to a major consultancy assignment. They had just won it but almost immediately strains had grown as they brought their very different approaches on how to deliver it.

They had to go to the client inception meeting but preparations were going badly. They had stopped talking and reduced communication to increasingly caustic and acrimonious emails. I was asked to see if my mediation skills – honed in a different environment – could help resolve the impasse. 

The older of the two was a slightly domineering man. He had much relevant experience and knew the project background. The younger was bright and had more initiative. He had just completed a similar project and brought new ideas. A good combination - so what was the blockage?

I suggested that we meet in a neutral venue – a hotel. I sat between them and sensed that we had to start with their emotions. They were just so charged; we were not going to make progress until we had cleared the air.   As it turned out we spent most of the two hours together exploring their feelings.  It was a revelation.

The younger began to explain how he had worked for a domineering man who he could not respect. So he had decided to keep himself to himself and not share anything. He realized, as he said it, that he had taken this same attitude into his present job.

This display of vulnerability was the start of a series of exchanges that became more and more positive.   Quite soon the older man apologized; the younger responded with more openness.  And so the dialogue progressed.

I left them sitting side by side, pulling the presentation together. They had found a way of blending their individual insights into a single message – a whole. But they had of course done so much more than that; they had found a way of working together that was wholesome. They had repaired what had been broken.

For me I felt very blessed to see this reconciliation happen before my very eyes.  While they had been hurting and talking I had been praying madly!  I saw God come into the situation to heal; and the decisive moment was when the door was opened that little bit - by the humility of one of the parties.  Just as Jesus had to humble himself to open the door to us.

John Parmiter is partner in a development and infrastructure constancy; he is married to Jackie and they have four grown up married children. He is a London Institute of Contemporary Christianity Associate Speaker on workplace issues.

‘A sensible Christian presence can make for a happier workplace’

Responding to conflict in the workplace? Hold their coats while they fight it out? More likely we would help avoid any situation getting to that. On a personal level, if you follow the model of a chaplain, they are there to be in touch with people, and to listen. Questions of confidentiality and trust arise, so immediately you are limited because if someone tells you about a problem with someone else in the workplace, you can’t act on it unless you have permission to do so.

But you can listen. Just by talking through a problem, maybe they will see how to sort it out, a different way to approach it, may realise they have blown it out of all proportion. And if they allow you to, perhaps you can intercede, talk to the other party, support a complaint about bullying if that’s the issue. It depends on the nature of the conflict. You can’t provide instant answers or sort it out yourself, but you may be able to support others towards a solution.

If it’s an organisational matter – an industrial dispute – you again are limited because one of the first rules of chaplaincy is neutrality. But it is precisely that neutrality, the trust a good chaplain develops with all parties, which could make a difference. If one side is “bang out of order”, tell them, thereby possibly compromising your neutrality, so don’t do this lightly.  But be honest and “prophetic”. They may be more likely to take it from you. If there is a breakdown in communication, a chaplain can help build bridges,  get people talking again, help people realise the differences aren’t that great, get the one side to appreciate the other’s standpoint, open up channels of communication.

Listen, get people talking to each other, be neutral, don’t take sides. A sensible Christian presence can make for a happier workplace.

David Wrighton is a Methodist layman who works for IBEX - The Churches Working with the Economy. IBEX is supported by the Southern Counties Baptist Association and seeks to relate Christian faith to economy and workplace
The Big Question September 2013 "We are a small rural church, what is our purpose, and how can we really make a difference to our community? Any ideas welcome!"

This article appears in the Spring 2014 edition of Together Magazine

Baptist Times, 13/01/2014
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